Comic relief: Eccentric Hale keeps teammates in stitches, but batters don't laugh when he takes mound
Thursday, April 23, 2009 5:31 AM
By Mark Znidar
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Ohio State teammates never quite know which Jake Hale they're going to get when the reliever crosses the threshold of the locker room before a practice or game.
Will he be wearing the ostrich skin boots? Or will he make a fashion statement with the alligator or snakeskin boots?
Which of the 20 collectible belt buckles will be holding up his jeans? He has even worn one that lights up.
The senior right-hander who is so eccentric that he really should be a lefty also has an assortment of body art. The tattoo that never fails to crack up teammates is a handlebar mustache inked on the inside of his right index finger.
"I'll put the finger to my lip like this," Hale said in demonstration. "It gets them every time. I keep everybody laughing. We have a lot of fun in the bullpen. I'm an off-the-wall kind of guy. I'm a laid-back kind of guy."
That is, he's that way outside the white lines.
When coach Bob Todd signals for Hale, who is 6 feet 7 and 200 pounds, he transforms himself from funny man into a closer with the mentality of a hanging judge.
Hale is just the most recent in a long line of Buckeyes relievers such as Mike Stafford, Cory Cox and Rory Meister who have kept teammates loose with laughter and frustrated opponents with a bag of tricks. Going into a three-game series against Northwestern beginning Friday night in Bill Davis Stadium, Hale leads the Big Ten in appearances (24), games finished (23) and saves (10). He has struck out 42 and given up 21 hits in 32 innings with a fastball, slider and change-up.
"Once I hop the fence and come into a game, I'm a different person," Hale said. "I can turn it on when I have to. I want to be that guy at the end of every game. I feel like I can get anybody out."
It's not as if Hale is blowing them away with heat.
"I'm not just a power pitcher," he said. "I change speeds and location. I don't want anybody to get a report on me. You don't have to throw 100 mph to get people out. I had nothing against Michigan State one day and I threw pitches that were slow and slower. They were like lobs. They were taking their whacks and couldn't hit me."
The Buckeyes (29-8, 9-3) lead the Big Ten, and Hale has been one of the key players. Last Saturday, for instance, he saved both ends of a doubleheader against Purdue. In the first game, he came on with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth and got out of the jam.
"We've used Jake a lot, and he is capable of that," Todd said. "He has that rare quality to pitch on almost a daily basis."
Hale has come a long way since walking on to campus as a raw country boy from Albany, which is south of Athens.
"Jake was a typical college kid, and he went through some experiences on and off the field that weren't serious but things he has learned from," pitching coach Eric Parker said. "He's stronger for that. Jake has learned it's about making the right decisions."
That maturity has come to life in living color on Hale's body. He has a tattoo on the left calf of a tree and city symbolizing community and Albany and Columbus and roots because he's part Native American. On the shin, there is a powerful hand representing his Christianity.
"I'm going to honor my grandmother, Helen Britton, and Lowell Beaver, a man in his 80s who befriended me in high school, by having their fingerprints tattooed on my back," Hale said. "I'll have part of them with me forever."
Todd is proud of his closer.
"Jake, I think, has been getting his priorities straight," he said. "Now, he thinks about attaining goals. He has taken all of our talks to heart and he's putting that into action."